20 Pages Posted: 17 Aug 2012
Date Written: 2005
In one of the few widely discussed passages in the Doctrine of Right, Kant makes the surprising claim that a shipwrecked sailor who dislodges another from a plank that will support only one of them is “culpable, but not punishable.” Many commentators regard this passage as a sort of smoking gun that shows that, in extremis, Kant resorts to the very sort of empirical and consequentialist reasoning that he claims to do without. My aim in this paper is to defend his analysis, by showing both that it can be generalized, and that it provides a satisfying account of the normative boundary between justification and excuse in the criminal law. After explaining Kant’s remark in light of the context in which he makes it, my main strategy of defense will be to show how it applies not only to the specific example Kant considers, but also to cases in which a person responds to danger by damaging property, and those in which a person whose own life is not in danger breaks the law to save the life of another. I will also use his account to illustrate the difficulties with the leading alternatives.
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